VCU grad students step up to treat COVID-19 patients

Posted at 3:23 PM, Apr 28, 2020
and last updated 2020-04-28 18:31:56-04

RICHMOND, Va - A group of VCU graduate students training to become nurse anesthetists now find themselves on the frontlines of the coronavirus pandemic, treating COVID-19 patients instead of logging clinical hours.

Rachel Barksdale, who is scheduled to graduate from VCU’s Nurse Anesthesia program in December, is one of five students now picking up shifts in the ICU at VCU Medical Center.

She said her passion for anesthesia developed while working as a critical care nurse.

“[I] was totally drawn into anesthesia as a field. It’s just such an exact science,” Barksdale said. “They are truly the airway experts.”

In-person meetings were canceled by the university last month and classes moved online, so clinical hours nurse anesthesia students must log to graduate were dramatically cut.

However, Barksdale and her cohort were already trained and experienced in critical care nursing, a requirement for VCU’s Nurse Anesthesia program.

“These graduate students are mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, a lot of them have families, and they’re all critical care nurses, so they need that critical care nursing experience to even be considered to enroll,” said Dr. Suzanne Wright, Chair of VCU’s Nurse Anesthesia program. “I couldn’t be more proud if this never happened, let alone them stepping up here.”

“A lot of us were like: it would be great, it would be awesome to go back and help any way we can,” Barkdale said. “Some of these patients are very sick, and when they go downhill, they go downhill pretty quickly.”

The students are not permitted to perform anesthesia procedures yet, but Barksdale said she is using the moment to help patients and pay attention to how her studies apply to them.

“One of the COVID patients on our unit had to be emergently intubated, so they called anesthesia to the bedside, so I’m trying to watch in the room and see what they’re doing, like ‘oh what drug did they just give?’” she said.

“Her role now, when she goes and takes care of COVID patients, is to be a critical care nurse and work within that scope. But she can’t entirely remove herself of the knowledge that she’s learned over the last few years,” said Dr. Wright.

While online instruction and lectures continue, Barksdale is adjusting to the realities of caring for COVID patients, both on her anesthesia training and home life.

“It’s a lot of, as soon as I get home from work, not hugging my husband, immediately going to shower, leaving my shoes in a certain place. It makes you think about a lot of stuff you didn’t necessarily think about before,” she said. “School is all online now, so it’s been interesting trying to sort of stay on a regular schedule. I’m still trying to watch my lectures at the normal time I would have been going to class.”

For the next few months, Dr. Wright said instruction is pretty much at a “bare-bones” level for their program, but added they are working to make sure students like Barksdale met graduation requirements soon.

“I think we have to focus on the clinical education of our students in healthcare period because they are the future people who will be handling the next pandemic,” she said.

Barksdale still hopes to graduate from the program in December after putting more than two years of work into her training. In the meantime, she and her cohort continue to pick up shifts and serve on the frontlines of the pandemic.

“That’s part of why you become a nurse in the first place, is wanting to help people and wanting to make a difference,” she said. “When that opportunity arose, you don’t even think twice about it. You’re just like: absolutely. If I can be used, if I can be helpful, I’m in; send me in.”

Any student who cares for a COVID patient must self-quarantine for at least 14 days before stepping back into any clinical training, Dr. Wright said.

The Nurse Anesthesia program at VCU was ranked top in the country by U.S. News and World Report. You can learn more about the program on their website.

Depend on CBS 6 News and for the most complete coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic.

COVID-19 Precautions

Most patients with COVID-19 have mild to moderate symptoms. However, in a small proportion of patients, COVID-19 can lead to more severe illness, including death, particularly among those who are older or those who have chronic medical conditions.

COVID-19 spreads primarily through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

Symptoms include fever, cough, and difficulty breathing. Symptoms appear within 14 days of being exposed to an infectious person.

Virginia health officials urged the following precautions:

  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer only if soap and water are not available.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve (not your hands) when coughing or sneezing.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces.Stay home when you are sick.
  • Avoid contact with sick people.Avoid non-essential travel.